Mitch Leigh, a composer of advertising jingles who wrote the memorable score to one of the longest-running shows in Broadway history, “Man of La Mancha,” died March 16 at a hospital in New York. He was 86.
The cause was pneumonia and complications from a stroke, said his wife, painter Abby Leigh. He lived in Manhattan.
“Man of La Mancha” ran on Broadway from 1965 to 1971 and gave Leigh his one big hit, “The Impossible Dream (The Quest).” The melody line with its appropriately quixotic lyrics — “To dream the impossible dream, to fight the unbeatable foe” — has been described by The New York Times as “one of the most pervasive anthems of uplift in showbiz history.”
The song has been recorded by singers including Frank Sinatra, Johnny Mathis and Plácido Domingo. There was even a jazz instrumental interpretation by trumpeter Maynard Ferguson. Brian Stokes Mitchell, the star of the show’s 2002 revival, sang it at the memorial service for Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass.
Moreover, “The Impossible Dream” is perhaps rivaled only by Paul Anka’s “My Way” as an enduring standard for lounge singers at piano bars.
“Man of La Mancha” garnered five Tony Awards, including best musical, best composer for Leigh and best lyricist for Joe Darion. The book was by Dale Wasserman. The show’s initial run ended after 2,328 performances and has since been revived four times on Broadway.
In the original Broadway run, Richard Kiley played the dual role of Don Quixote, a bumbling 17th century nobleman who embarks on a comically disastrous attempt to revive chivalry and knighthood, and Quixote’s creator, Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes.
The roles were later played by Peter O’Toole in a 1972 film adaptation and Jacques Brel on the French stage.
“Man of La Mancha” was Leigh’s only commercial hit as a composer. Other shows with his music — “Cry for Us All” (1970), “Home Sweet Homer” (1976) and “Sarava” (1979) — all shuttered after brief runs. His last musical, “Ain’t Broadway Grand,” about theater and film producer Mike Todd, closed after three weeks in 1993.
At other times, Leigh revived other composer’s shows: He helped produce a 1983 Broadway revival of “Mame,” starring Angela Lansbury, and directed a 1985 revival of “The King and I,” featuring Yul Brynner. The latter brought him a Tony nomination for best direction of a musical.
Apart from “Man of La Mancha,” Leigh’s other income came as a jingle writer — something he continued long after winning a Tony. His Madison Avenue clients included Ken-L Ration dog food and the Sara Lee.
Copywriter Robert Levenson of the firm Doyle Dane Bernbach created the enduring slogan, “Everybody doesn’t like something/ But nobody doesn’t like Sara Lee.” It was Leigh who set it to music.
Leigh, the son of a Ukrainian-born furrier, was born Irwin Stanley Michnick in Brooklyn on Jan. 30, 1928. A bassoonist as a young man, he graduated from the High School of Music and Art in New York.
After Army service — “I went overseas to Staten Island,” he liked to say — he entered Yale University on the GI Bill and received bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music in the early 1950s.
His first marriage, to Renee Goldman, ended in divorce. Survivors include his wife of 42 years, Abby Kimmelman Leigh of Manhattan; a son from his first marriage, Andy Leigh of New York; two children from his second marriage, playwright Rebecca Leigh of London and David Leigh of New Haven, Conn.; and a sister.
When the earnings from “Man of La Mancha” put Leigh in a tax bracket as high as 70 percent, his accountant urged him to buy land as a tax shelter. He started buying parcels in Jackson Township, N.J. Over the years, he purchased nearly 1,000 acres.
His goal was to start a community, Jackson 21, and he took to New York television stations with a memorable sales pitch:
“My name is Mitch Leigh; I’m a dreamer. If you’re interested in a shop, restaurant, office, apartments, town homes — or whatever! — and you are a really nice person, please contact me at jacksontwentyone.com and share my dream.
“If you’re not a nice person, please don’t call.”
The ads puzzled many viewers. Some wondered if Jackson 21 was a cult or a scam — and how he could possibly screen for “nice” people.
“I think if you see that no one is going to laugh at you for it, I think the concept of living nicely will be infectious,” Leigh told The New York Times last year.
“I believe there is room for the absence of cynicism,” he added. “This is my final dream before I take the last cab.”